Workshop helps hikers navigate county’s trails |

Workshop helps hikers navigate county’s trails

Tamara Miller
NWS Maps PU 7-31 Preston Utley/ Participants of the Suunto/Beaver Creek Hiking Navigational Skills Workshop find cordinates on a map in Beaver Creek on Saturday.

Topography maps are tremendously useful things.I purchased one when I first moved to Vail about four years ago and I still have it now. It’s a nice-looking sort of map, with plenty of symbols detailing elevations, streams, pack trails and camping sites.I feel good about carrying it with in the top compartment of my backpack, and I usually try to remember to bring a compass along, too. After all, if I ever get lost in the wilderness, I know a compass and a topo map could save me from a cold night in the forest, or worse.Too bad I have no idea how to use either of them.Turns out I’m not the only one, which is why the Beaver Creek Hiking Center hosted a half-day workshop Saturday intent on giving people, like myself, some basic map reading and compass skills. We also talked about gadgets, like the Global Position Systems (GPS) which you see everywhere these days. But our teacher, former Colonel Nick Fickling, set us straight early on that we wouldn’t be spending the morning punching buttons.

“I’m quite an old geezer and these things are relatively new to me,” he said. Just in case?Fickling is a professional navigator. He spent 26 years in the military commanding the British Defense Mapping School at Hermitage and he also lead the allied troops’ mapping and navigation cell in Ridyadu during the first Gulf War. He’s won both the individual and team UK Army Orienteering Championships and has competed in orienteering and ski-orienteering events across Europe. He knows how to find his way through a Middle Eastern desert. I just want to know how to get myself off Beaver Creek Mountain if I miss the last lift run.Those who attended the workshop varied in their expertise, but it was intended for beginning and intermediate level map users. Some, like Karma Karoly, don’t intend to stray off the marked and well-documented trails much. She said just wanted to know how to read a map and use a compass if she ever has to.

“I want to know that I can help myself out,” she said. Others, like Jeff Green, already know how to read maps and use compasses. He wanted to learn how to navigate through the wilderness off maintained trails. “I was doing the Grand Traverse (over the Gore Range),” he said. “I tried going up the front but it was steeper than I thought. The next time I tried the other side and it was a lot easier.”We spent the morning poring over maps, learning how to read geographical coordinates, which are based on Earth’s spherical shape, and grid coordinates – based on a flat projection of the world. Geographical coordinates are also used in those GPS machines. Then we spent some time learning about compasses and finding the magnetic north, which, by the way, isn’t the North Pole. In fact, in Colorado you must figure the difference between true north – the North Pole – and magnetic north – the direction in which the arrow in your compass is pointing – to determine which was is really north on your map.But what good is all these technical stuff unless you can use it find your way around?

Next, the desertSo, that’s what we did. We were handed a map of the Beaver Creek Mountain that was used by competitors in the recent Balance Bar adventure race. Competitors in that race were given six different locations to race to – sort of like a scavenger hunt that requires some orienteering skills. We only had to find one of the six places. Armed with our maps, compasses and eyesight. Locating particular bearings, or visible points of interest, is key in orienteering, Fickling said. We figured out which way to head from the Centennial Lift to a particular point on the mountain labeled ‘F’. After we figured that out, we picked out a reasonable route – since none of us preferred to go tromping straight up the hill – and set out for our destination.I did well, though when the group split into differing directions I ignored my gut instinct and ended up taking a slightly roundabout way to the end point. Nonetheless, we made it, celebrated the success and headed back down.By early afternoon I had found my way off Beaver Creek Mountain. I guess I’ll tackle the Middle Eastern desert next time.Staff writer Tamara Miller can be reached via e-mail at or by calling 949-0555, ext. 607.

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